Religious nationalism is happening around the world. Netanyahu’s victory in Israel was dependent on a right-wing Jewish extremist party. In India, Modi stays in power with appeals to Hindu nationalists. In like manner, appeals to “Christian” values have impelled Orban of Hungary to authoritarian rule, and Putin enjoys support for war from his Russian Orthodox patriarch. As part of a worldwide movement, Christian nationalism in America fits in quite well.
The attraction of religious nationalism may be due to threats to both capitalism and nation-states. Capitalism is threatened by a loss of cheap labor, as fewer farmers are leaving the farm to seek low wage jobs in industry. Capitalism is also faced with paying for climate change, either through fines, regulations, or taxes. Nations are seeing increasing numbers of immigrants and refugees, the number of good jobs are declining, and national identity is threatened. As a result, nationalism, funded by capitalists, has sought allies in the religious majorities in their nation. By concentrating on the sins of someone else (such as abortion, crime, and LGBTQ issues), they can deflect the criticism leveled against economic inequality, the inhumane treatment of refugees, and anti-democratic moves to gain and sustain power. Though most churches are suffering from a loss of members, the lure of being recognized for their stand on social issues can be quite appealing.
In this climate, the LCMS has finally found a “fellowship” with other Christians, as it joins them in anti-abortion marches and testimony before Congress. LCMS leadership rejoices in the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and applauds and supports those who refuse to make wedding cakes for a gay couple’s marriage. This past summer, district conventions of the LCMS passed resolutions against the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT), reflecting the concerns of the well-organized and funded “Moms for Liberty.” At one district convention, President Harrison spoke against abortion and criticized the practice of aiding transgender youth who seek surgery, even going into the gruesome details of the procedure.
In these positions the LCMS aligns itself with the mainstream of the Republican party in the U.S. After hearing President’s Harrison’s presentation, one observer commented, “I guess they are not interested in having any Democrats as members.” Even relatively moderate members of the Synod find it hard to take a position contrary to those espoused by the leadership and publications of the Synod. Given the LCMS tradition of not getting involved in secular politics, the Synod, thus far, has not endorsed candidates, or taken up positions on election denial, nor has it yet joined with the advocates of Christian Dominionism, who want biblical laws to govern America.
Perhaps most significant about the Synod’s social stance is its failure to address the concerns of Matthew 25, which might be called “the ethics of the Kingdom.” Since these biblical passages deal with our final judgment, they take precedence over abortion and LGBTQ concerns. Aren’t these scriptural passages related to race, refugees, immigrants, prison reform, and climate change? Yet, one looks in vain for in-depth analysis and passionate advocacy about such issues. Are those too political for the leadership of the Synod? LCMS leaders claim that the Bible is clear about abortion and homosexuality, as they pick out the “slivers” of several passages while ignoring the “logs” of economic inequality in the Year of Jubilee, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the threat of hell in Matthew 25.
While the position of the leadership of Synod is not aligned specifically with advocates of Christian Nationalism, it has marched with them and, in some cases, agreed with them. More worrisome, however, is the historical example of what has happened to good Christians, whose religious buttons have been pushed to support dictators, violence, persecution, and war. It is interesting that Hitler appealed to “family values” to win over those good “German Christians,” many of whom were Lutheran. Currently, Putin and his patriarch are attempting to do the same in Russia, while devastating Ukraine in the process. Putin is also against the rights of LGBTQ folk.
Because of the capitalist-supported right wing of the Republican Party, efforts have been made to deny elections, gerrymander districts, intimidate voters, threaten opponents, and control elections, all because the GOP is a minority in this country. The wealthy leaders of that party are afraid that the majority of people would tax their wealth to establish greater equality and to move toward a healthier environment. As a result, the GOP needs more voters on its side. Evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics, and even LCMS Lutherans qualify, and they can be motivated to vote “right” if the issues are crafted well. Manipulated by the leadership of the Synod and the right-wing of the Republican Party, even the dwindling numbers of LCMS Christians might threaten the democracy of the United States.
Risk To Our Faith?
The global turn to the right, which has received approval and support from many of the world’s religions, may be the last gasp of the transition of the nation-state system and of capitalism into something different yet unknown. Locked into that system, such a transition may also be a risk to our faith. We will need our faith to meet the challenges of the future. Transition to a new world system will require an alternative to the politics of coercion. Given the huge problems of climate change, world unemployment, poverty, refugees, lack of housing, and war, what is needed is a politics of consensus. But consensus is only possible through loss, sacrifice, and compromise. Instead of blaming problems on the other side, we ought to repent of our sins and apologize for our actions. We then may hear the good news that there is a future beyond the laws that hold up the present system. Redeemed by Christ, we are freed from those laws to embrace what is unknown and to work creatively for what is new, and fair, and just, and beautiful.
Ed. Note. Readings on Christian Nationalism:
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Liveright, 2021.
Paul D. Miller, The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism, IVP Academic, 2022.
Pamela Cooper-White, The Psychology of Christian Nationalism: Why People Are Drawn In and How to Talk Across the Divide, Fortress Press, 2022.
Angela Denker, Red State Christians: A Journey into White Christian Nationalism and the Wreckage It Leaves Behind, Broadleaf Books, 2022.